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    Photos by Eric Matthews

    Dec. 7: The sky is gray and the air bitterly cold as a small group begins setting up a sound system in the shadow of the Federal Building on Broadway. Some of them are old friends, some greet each other as they meet for the first time. Sheets of cardboard emblazoned with slogans like “Data wants to be free!” and “Kentucky needs the net!” go up around the south stairs, and a man wearing a thick ushanka checks a mic. A modest crowd gathers as evening comes, growing much more rapidly when word gets around that one of those huddled for warmth at the center of the group is Adam Savage, former cohost of the Discovery channel series Mythbusters. He’s there for the same reason they are: to protest the FCC’s upcoming vote to repeal Net Neutrality and urge congress — but more importantly the people of Louisville — to take action.

    Organizer Ashley Best moves around the scene in a tie-dye lab coat — “I put this on and pretend to be an extrovert,” she says. Best, who also organizes the March for Science, decided to put today’s protest together when she realized that no one else in the city was demonstrating against the vote. She figured it made more sense to take on the job with her prior experience than to wait for someone else to start from scratch. Savage’s offer to speak at the event, since he was in town to perform the following night, rapidly expanded her modest plans and sent her scrambling to find a PA system.

    At the heart of the protest is the federal classification of internet providers as common carriers (like landline phones), which prevents them from prioritizing some of the content they transmit over the rest. This Thursday, Dec. 14, the FCC will vote on a measure to reverse this classification, which is expected to pass 3-2. The majority’s logic is that the regulations hurt businesses and hinder innovation, but those gathered here and around the country see starkly different consequences.

    “Net Neutrality is the First Amendment of the internet,” filmmaker-cum-hype man Ben Evans explains into the microphone. “It prevents companies like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T from charging us all extra fees to access the online services we depend on, and manipulating what we see with throttling, content blocking and censorship. Vulnerable communities will lose access to critical resources, and communities of color, low income communities and rural communities are most at risk.” He then gives the crowd the number for Congress, (202) 759-7766, and implores them to call and give their input — though he concedes that trying to get through to Mitch McConnell is like “screaming into the void.”

    Savage takes the makeshift stage as the last light of sunset disappears, his rockstar status among the nerd set palpable in the crowd. He has been graciously dispensing autographs and selfies to those who ask, but he’s not here as a celebrity — just one of many concerned citizens.

    Mythbusters' Adam Savage speaks in front of the Federal Building.

     “Net Neutrality is a false debate based upon a false premise. On one side is the people demanding our internet continue its original promise of equal and unbiased access to information,” Savage says to the crowd. “On the other side we have corporations whose annual income dwarfs countries, extracting every possible dollar from their customers for services which often cost them no money, while providing substandard service to those they’re already underserving. They are content having us pay more to send text messages to each other than NASA pays to send data to and from the Hubble telescope.” At this, the crowd erupts in cheers of “Amen!”

    Savage also takes aim at the FCC’s claims about Net Neutrality slowing innovation, citing domestic internet speeds that cost twice as much as those in cities like Seoul, Bucharest and London, despite being up to eight times slower. For this slow service, telecomm companies charge not only consumers, but service providers as well. Savage expects these conditions to worsen should Net Neutrality be repealed, and believes it’s a dark omen that the decision rests in the hands of a former Verizon lawyer, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, whose previous employer is now lobbying heavily for the repeal.

    “Our ability to govern ourselves according to our values depends on the free and level flow of information,” he says. “Those in power seek to stay in power by controlling what we see.”

    After his speech ends and the applause subsides, Evans opens the mic up for individual testimony. Most voice the same concerns as Savage, like media freedom, corporate influence of politics and global competition with faster internet abroad. Jeff Grammer, Democratic candidate for Kentucky House district 36, talks about the plight of the neighborhood of Fisherville, along Taylorsville Road, where no high speed internet is available. David Cross shares an anecdote about his first online experience in 1994, seeing a message from a stranger in Brazil appear on his computer terminal. “He didn’t speak my language and I didn’t speak his, but we faked it for a few minutes,” Cross says. “It was the most incredible thing that had happened to either of us.”

    At 6 p.m., the protest is scheduled to end and the portable generator putters out. During the event’s peak, there were nearly 200 in attendance, and many brave the numbing wind and keep circulating on the sidewalk in front of the building. Few draw more attention than 20-year-old Tevin McAtee, who has stood outside for the duration of the demonstration in nothing more than a pair of red Nikes and American flag patterned shorts with a bandana to match. He carries a sign proclaiming, “I will die of hypothermia before I let Net Neutrality die.”

    “I’m out here risking hypothermia because it’s important to make people see that what the FCC is trying to do risks our citizens’ access to knowledge,” McAtee says. “If an ISP makes a specific bundle you need to access the news, some people won’t be able to afford access to that information.” As the temperature creeps toward freezing, several other protesters strip off their shirts and stand by McAtee to amplify the message. Most prefer to stay bundled in their coats, but everyone shares the sentiment.

    “An open internet is completely crucial to the free exchange of ideas enshrined in our American Constitution and in many equally progressive governments around the world. I view its defense as one of the most important issues of our time,” Savage says. “I recognize that that sounds like hyperbole, but I don’t think that it is.”

    You can enter a comment about net neutrality on the FCC's website by clicking here, then clicking the "17-108" link, then clicking "Express."

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